UTS graduate BLAKE PAUL KENDALL tells us all about the death of languages. His latest project – a children’s book written in the language of the Penan people of Borneo – is an effort to preserve just one of the world’s many endangered languages.
We are living in the age of endangered cultures. Currently there are approximately 6,000 languages spoken on earth. Every two weeks a language is spoken no more. Based on this alarming rate of loss, it is estimated that in 50 years, the number of languages spoken across the world will have decreased by half.
There are some who challenge this statistic, questioning why we should save languages when it is more efficient in a globalised world for everyone to speak the same language. This argument questions the very nature of what it means to be human. Each language contains the fibres of interpretation and an understanding of life. Inherent in a language is a whole understanding of the world, and unique values and meanings. And it is always the oldest Indigenous languages of the world – that have come from sustainable cultures – that are the first to be lost forever.
The fight to protect these languages is the fight for diversity, and for the respect that comes with knowing that there is no universally correct way of interpreting life. The development of the West has many values, however there is also much to be learned from other languages and cultures.
Modernisation does not have to mean Westernisation!
“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse gift will find a fitting place.”
– Margaret Mead, anthropologist.
Freedom of Speech is the Freedom to Speak!
Over the last year, I have put my efforts as a storyteller into play in the fight for the preservation of language and culture for the Penan. The Penan are the Indigenous people of the jungles of Borneo, and one of the last nomadic groups in the world. Even out of the 10,000 Penan living today, there are only approximately 200 living in the traditional nomadic style in the jungles of Sarawak, Malaysia and Brunei.
The Penan way of life changed dramatically in the middle of the 20th Century with the arrival of Christian missionaries, who converted the Penan from their previous animistic beliefs. When the clearance of the rainforest began in the 1980s, it introduced additional threats to the maintenance of the Penan culture. With the ever-increasing deforestation caused by the logging and palm oil industries, the land with which the Penan have traditionally lived in a harmonious and sustainable relationship is under threat.
Right now, in addition to the threats to their livelihood and land, the Penan face the direct threat of the next generation losing their language due to the education system. All schooling for the Penan is in Malay and English. As such, there is little space for the next generation to continue to learn the Penan language.
In a post-colonial existence, with land being invaded and claimed by outsiders (currently faceless corporations), and with the direct threat of enforced foreign-language education policies, there exists an undeniable practice of cultural genocide across the globe. Is this globalisation, the enigma of our age? Shall we all walk and talk as one for the sake of efficiency and economic development, without a clear concept of the ramifications?
For many people, that is enough. The tower of Babel that has merged its foundations into Western sensitivity hones a temperament of difference. It is unsurprising that in a society plagued by concepts of competition and linear understandings of the biological and social makeup of our world – namely ‘survival of the fittest’ – we maintain a precedent of competition, with clear-cut rights and wrongs, and progress being at the core of the zeitgeist.
The Penan elder knows just as much as the UTS professor. Though their, interpretations of life differ, neither is superior. This concept of the relationship between wisdom and age is essential in understanding the plight of dying cultures. These Indigenous communities, facing their demise, draw their knowledge of themselves from their elders. When that is compared with the invisibility of the elderly in our society, there is an obvious disparity. This is the first time in Western society that the hierarchy of knowledge has tipped; the young now have one up on the old. Suddenly the wise elder of the community is made redundant, and if the West had its choice, I’m sure the Penan elders would be made to ‘retire.’
Whatever the reason for this cultural genocide – that in many ways is celebrated – all that becomes clear in the web of dissection is that the odds are stacked against the maintenance and celebration of Indigenous languages and cultures.
As such, this is a call to stand up and speak out!
Get involved. As the fresh minds of Sydney, celebrate difference. Celebrate the diversity of cultures and traditions – your own and those of others. Speak out against the constant plight of people(s) who face losing their language and culture, and use your energies for their preservation and celebration.
Last year when I was in the jungles of Borneo, I worked with Penan communities to create one of the first educational resources in their language, as a direct response to the threats that face these people. With elders and young ones alike, we workshopped, wrote and illustrated a children’s book called Apo Uleu (Our Sago). It’s the story of five children who are taken into the jungle with their grandparents and embark on the journey of collecting and making sago, a traditional food of the Penan. This book is one step in the preservation of language and culture for the Penan.
Right now I am crowdfunding to cover the costs of printing the book and distributing a copy to every Penan child. No matter the amount, every contribution counts.
To make a donation, or to find out more go to:
(Donate before May 10th, 2014)
I invite you to be part of the story. Help save a dying language before it’s too late!